2008 Stone Lectures: “Jonathan and Sarah Attend a Megachurch: the Religious Affections and Evangelicalism Today”
Wednesday, October 8, 2008
By George Marsden
Princeton Theological Seminary
Wednesday, October 8, 2008
By George Marsden
Princeton Theological Seminary
In tonight’s lecture, the fourth of five Stone Lectures, George Marsden sought to bring Jonathan Edwards into conversation with contemporary evangelicalism. Marsden began by first restating the key Edwardsian thesis from the night before, viz. at that the center of world history is the history of redemption, and thus periodic awakenings are the driving force of world events. Edwards would thus be heartened by the worldwide spread of evangelical Christianity. Yet, like us, he would keep asking whether this is a growth in quantity at the expense of quality.
Marsden noted that evangelicalism has been criticized for conforming to modern American culture. And because it has no institutional restraints, almost anyone nowadays can pick up a Bible and claim to speak the gospel. Even so, evangelicalism has a striking degree of coherence. Throughout churches in this country, one finds more or less the same teachings, the same songs, etc. The basic tenets of the faith are there despite evangelicalism’s fragmentation.
What accounts for this coherence? Certainly, the proper theological response is the Holy Spirit. But the Spirit works through various means. And one of the key means, according to Marsden, in evangelicalism is the market. This accounts for its coherence and for the loss of quality. The result of the market’s influence is that, while the essential message is there, it is mixed with a lot of nonsense. The wheat and tares grow together. So how do we tell the difference? How do we distinguish between heresy and the gospel, between true and false religion? Enter Edwards.
The premise of this lecture is: if John and Sarah Edwards attended a megachurch, how would they assess it? Many people do not realize that a lot of the central controversial features of evangelicalism were already around in Edwards’s own time. There were extreme outbursts of emotion, some of which Edwards was directly involved in. Edwards acknowledged that there were excesses and “false awakenings.” He clearly stated that ecstatic experiences do not prove anything one way or the other. Yet he defended such experiences based on the transformative power of encountering the glorious love of God. Such power would manifest itself in experiences and outbursts due to the radical reorienting of one’s affections.
The key text for understanding Edwards’s assessment of evangelicalism is his famous Treatise on the Religious Affections (1746). The essential difference between true and false religion is there framed in the following way: true religion focuses on God’s beauty and love, while false religion focuses on self-satisfaction and self-aggrandizement. This is a relevant distinction for us today. In our present society, there is an ever growing emphasis on the self. We live in a culture of consumerism. America is the home of the self-made person. We see this reflected in the prevalence of prosperity gospels.
Since there are not usually overt doctrinal heresies, it remains difficult to sort out genuine faith from false faith, even with Edwards’s distinction in mind. And Edwards acknowledges this at the end of his treatise. Sin always clouds our judgment, so there is no definitive rule for distinguishing true and false religion. But there are still 12 signs to look for, which he lists. Marsden does not go into these in any depth, but he notes that most focus on God being truly the source of our affections. This includes true knowledge of God. Edwards would thus be appalled by the anti-intellectualism of modern evangelicalism. But Edwards also readily acknowledges that the intellect is not the center of faith, even if doctrine is a necessary precondition. The key traits of true religion are found in the fruit of the Spirit, in virtues like self-renunciation, gentleness of spirit, and the like. Edwards speaks of a “beautiful symmetry” of virtues that he contrasts with the imbalance of false zealots. The key question is: where do your affections lead you?
The final part of the lecture focused on three observations about how Edwards, as part of the Reformed tradition, might assess evangelicalism today. And here Marsden brought in Sarah Edwards as the main dialogue partner.
1. First, the influence of women. Women had a very strong influence on Edwards. Women surrounded him throughout his life, as he was the only son in his family and the father of eight daughters (and three sons). The key women were his mother, Esther Stoddard—who could have been a theologian in a less patriarchal society—and his wife, Sarah. And without question, Sarah was the biggest influence. Most of what we know about her comes from various testimonies about her. Edwards especially admired her piety. When he was 19 (and she was 13), he wrote a prose poem in praise of her virtue.
(Here Marsden went into an aside. Many today argue that American religious history is really the history of women, since women have the largest representation in American Christianity. Yet too often studies of women’s involvement in religion simply reflect the interests of today’s historians. They focus on the issue of power and the question of the marginalization of women. But a look at Sarah Edwards and people like her gives us a different perspective. The story of women in religion should focus not on power but on spirituality.)
We know the most about Sarah based on an experience she had in 1742 while Jonathan was away speaking at revivals. In his place, a visiting evangelist came to speak at Northampton. At first she was concerned about feelings of jealousy should this preacher have a greater influence on the town than her husband. But then an interesting thing happened. She submitted her will to God and had a great sense of divine peace. She experienced a heavenly joy for two full weeks. She would often be physically overcome and fall into a euphoric swoon. Moreover, Sarah was not jealous when the preacher spoke and was even among those who were emotionally impacted by the sermon. Edwards wrote the account down upon his return. For him, this was evidence that ecstatic affections were not just something for the spiritually immature, since Sarah was the most mature Christian he knew.
Altogether, Edwards used women primarily as his examples of true Christian piety. While he did write about certain men, it is clear that the women in his life shaped his understanding of the religious affections.
2. Second, the relation between Edwards’s understanding of Christianity and the Reformed tradition. The Reformed tradition is not known by what we might call “feminine” traits. It tends, instead, to be characterized by a kind of maleness. The Reformed often seem like “Protestant Jesuits.” The figures of Old Princeton, such as B. B. Warfield and Charles Hodge, are prime examples. Edwards, on the other hand, brought the Reformed tradition together with popular piety, expressivism, and modern culture. He was very aware of the limits of the intellect in Christian faith. His theology was a rare combination of intellect and piety. This is most likely due to the influence of women in his life.
3. Third and finally, Edwards offers a way of appreciating the truth of the gospel, even when it is mixed in with heresy or problematic understandings of the Christian faith. Here Richard Lovelace, in his book Dynamics of Spiritual Life, is very helpful. Lovelace says that virtually every heresy is a valid truth taken to extremes. Our instinct should not be to condemn but to identify the truth within these extreme forms of Christian religion, such as Pentecostalism and the Holiness movement. In encountering contemporary evangelicalism, Edwards would be able to say that God is indeed working everywhere, despite the many problems that we see in evangelicalism today.
Brief Assessment: Marsden’s lecture on Edwards and evangelicalism leaves quite a bit to be desired, from my perspective. It’s worth noting that the same crude distinction between husk and kernel that characterized Marsden’s historical method in the first lecture is found again here in the distinction between the heretical husk and true kernel. What’s even more problematic is that Marsden identifies the “heretical husk” with Pentecostal and Holiness forms of evangelicalism. The bias against Pietism that many have leveled against Marsden and Noll has a great deal of truth to it. He doesn’t seem able to acknowledge the possibility that the Reformed tradition might have got some things fundamentally wrong. Whether that’s actually true or not isn’t my concern. What is clear is that the pietist critics of Marsden have a case.
Also, Marsden does not seem to see any problem with his portrayal of women or the role of gender in his account of Edwards. Masculinity is still associated with rationalism, while femininity is associated with religious affections. Marsden upholds this stereotypical dichotomy in the lecture. Women become a mere aid to Edwards in his understanding of religious affections. Sure, they are important, as Marsden notes, but there was nothing in this lecture that challenged the standard trope regarding gender. Marsden gestures toward the issue of patriarchalism, but he does not seem cognizant of the larger question regarding gender stereotypes. As a result, his criticism of women’s religious history comes off as naïve and simplistic. Sure, power is not the whole story, and yes, spirituality is important. But what if the association of spirituality with women is precisely the problem, part of the overall stereotype of women as naturally religious and men as naturally rational? What if the association of spirituality with women actually reinforces these same power relations?
Finally, it strikes me that Marsden’s entire approach is flawed. In terms of historiography, he has reduced Edwards to what he thinks is relevant for us today. The husk has been thrown away to reveal the kernel inside. And so the more offensive or strange elements of Edwards’s thought have been shoved aside. Yet the conversation between Edwards and our culture is unidirectional; it’s not a conversation at all, in fact. There is no critique of Edwards based on Christian theology today. The result is that, in tonight’s lecture for example, the interaction between Edwards and evangelicalism has been reduced to the question of the affections (isn’t there anything to be said about the millenarianism of Edwards and, say, Tim LaHaye?), without ever raising the question about what Edwards might think of our radical egalitarianism and whether Edwards might learn something from our present circumstances.
Moreover, there was no real criticism from an Edwardsian perspective of contemporary evangelicalism. Marsden kept referring to heresies without pinning anything down, except to vaguely refer to Pentecostal traditions. And the only substantial critique concerned anti-intellectualism, but that was nothing new. Marsden and Noll have both attacked that in the past at much greater length. I was left with the impression that a great opportunity had been squandered. The topic of American evangelicalism is one that interests me greatly, and yet there was very little from tonight’s lecture on which to chew.